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Beebs

Imitation vs Natural Vanilla Extract

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This article from Epicurious came through my inbox today: Is Real Vanilla Always Better Than Imitation Vanilla?

 

Short answer - not necessarily. According to culinary historian Sarah Lohman (author Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine), the compounds that make up the complex vanilla flavour in natural vanilla extract can't survive high-heat cooking, such as cookies. Vanillin, which makes vanilla taste recognizably as vanilla, is sometimes all you need to get that familiar taste.  There's a mention of a vanilla-off in America's Test Kitchen where imitation & natural were tied, but I don't have a subscription so can't see the article.

 

:shock::shock::shock:

 

Well, smack me with a sugar cookie!!

 

I can't recall the last time I've used imitation vanilla for anything - it's always been drummed into me that real, natural vanilla is best. Presumably, the real stuff - paste, crush, extract, etc. - are still preferable for puddings and things, as they are cooked to a lower temperature than cookies.  And what about cakes?  I'm curious to test this out, if I can find the time to do it.

 

So, bakers & cooks of eGullet - what say you?  Has anyone done a comparison?

 

(And yes, I recognize imitation vanilla is commonly used in mass-produced foods, etc, etc; it has its place. But I'm curious about those using it at home or in their bakery/pastry shop.)

 

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What is said in your quote is, in my experience, true - high heat destroys natural vanilla. I found this out when using natural vanilla in baked goods about five years ago. When I started baking cakes and baked desserts, I used my own extraction of natural vanilla, which is really strong stuff. Clients used to query why I did not use vanilla in my baked goods, when I knew I had really "over dosed" the cake with natural vanilla. I then did a few experiments and found that once the product had cooled after baking, the vanilla flavour and aroma had disappeared. I did the same baking with vanilla essence and had no further complaints.

 

However, when using natural vanilla in products that are only warmed or not baked at a high heat, the natural vanilla is still strong. I bake Malva puddings and the sauce is boiled for a couple of minutes before removing from the heat. Then cream (a large quantity) is added and then natural vanilla - the vanilla flavour and aroma is still strong. If I add the vanilla to the sauce before the cream, the heat kills the vanilla. If I use vanilla essence, it makes no difference when I add it - the taste and aroma remains. Same with my Melktert - if I use natural vanilla, the taste and aroma are not present after baking but not so when using vanilla essence.

 

I was once told that some nartjie peel added and infused into a product helps the taste and aroma of natural vanilla not to be destroyed. I have done this and basically feel it is an old wives tail as only the slight nartjie aroma comes through and not the natural vanilla.

 

I seldom bake cookies and only for the house when I do, and always use the essence. I go through about 1.5 litres of vanilla essence a month and only about 250ml of my natural vanilla extract over the same period, which is only used for high end products that are not subjected to high heat. My vanilla beans come from Madagascar or Tanzania and are pretty high quality. I have never tried Mexican vanilla beans or the beans from Polynesia, nor have I ever tried the powder (actually, I have never come across the powder in South Africa).

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Since I was not familiar with the term "vanilla essence," I checked Google and got this information:  "Vanilla essence...is artificial and made using chemicals to recreate the flavor of vanilla." Do you think that is what the original poster was referring to as "imitation vanilla" or is it something different? Labeling requirements in the U.S. are rather strict and (I think) require the use of the "imitation" term when appropriate.

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@Jim D. I think you answered your own question in your post! Vanilla essence is imitation vanilla – in other words, not real!

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Cape Town - At the foot of a flat topped mountain with a tablecloth covering it.

Some time ago we had Johnny Cash, Bob Hope and Steve Jobs. Now we have no Cash, no Hope and no Jobs. Please don't let Kevin Bacon die.

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Rotuts send me some Gold Metal imitation vanilla several years back. I finally got around to trying it - and looking at the reviews. That stuff is better than all but one of the natural vanillas that I have had in the past (that one was from Haiti and I no longer have access to it). I bought a case of it a couple of years back - then recently a case of 4 gallon jugs. 

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To answer @Jim D., by "imitation" I mean artificial vanilla flavour or extract (vs natural/pure extract) - you know, the "cheap" stuff. :)

 

In the article, Lohman prefers using natural vanilla in her cakes rather than imitation, despite the extracts coming out at a tie in the vanilla-off.  Thought that was interesting - seems to me that cakes are baked at a high enough temperature that imitation vanilla might be a better option??  I am not a cake baker, except for the occasional banana bread.  

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I didn't believe it either when I first read it, several years ago, but tried the experiment myself and was surprised to find it accurate. That being said, there's some pretty nasty artificial vanilla out there. 

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"The only questions that really matter are the ones you ask yourself."

Ursula K. Le Guin

 

"Not knowing the scope of your own ignorance is part of the human condition...The first rule of the Dunning-Kruger club is you don’t know you’re a member of the Dunning-Kruger club.” - psychologist David Dunning

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"That being said, there's some pretty nasty artificial vanilla out there."

 

Not to mention the fake Mexican vanilla that comes in huge jugs and fools so many tourists (including my late mother). Not long ago I bought some Mexican vanilla beans from Beanilla and was quite surprised at the much more subtle flavor, compared to what my mother inflicted on all of us. I think it was CI that stated that product was not safe to consume.

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I can imagine being tempted by fake vanilla flavor if it weren't so cheap and easy to make your own extract. It's more expensive now than in past years, due to a vanilla shortage, but still, I think you can make a pint of extract with around $10 worth of grade-b beans and $5 worth of bottom-shelf vodka. I bought my vanilla bean stash for a fraction of this, but still, this gives you extract for less than $1 an ounce.

 

A little less than low-grade extract; way less than the good stuff. I'm not shy with it.

 

I'd agree that you lose all but a hint of it in anything that spends much time in the oven. But a lot of flavor sticks around in things that cook quickly (pancakes, etc.). It's actually pretty easy to overdo it.


Notes from the underbelly

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I recall reading the ATK article at the library several years ago.  If memory serves me right, Kimball said that real vanilla contains dozens of compounds that make up its taste and complexity, but that most of them were volatile compounds so they dissipated when subjected to high heat.   Out of the many compounds present in real vanilla extract, there was one called vanillin which was responsible for a vast majority of what we perceive as vanilla taste.  I think that he went on say that artificial vanilla is synthesized/extracted from wood pulp (I could be wrong on this though), and it only contained vanillin and not the rest of the trace compounds.  This extracted or synthesized vanillin stood up to heat better so it was the better choice when making cookies and cakes.  If somebody has access to ATK, I'd welcome any corrections. 

 

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Its an interesting comment on our times that we prefer manufactured flavors more than the natural product.

 


Edited by Paul Fink (log)

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29 minutes ago, Paul Fink said:

Its an interesting comment on our times that we prefer manufactured flavors more than the natural product.

 

 

I think you were seriously misreading what is being said.  If a natural product has no flavour once it reaches high temperature then it is a waste of that product.   Natural vanilla has a place which everyone seems to agree and vanilla essence or vanillin is a better choice when the final product will undergo prolonged exposure to heat. 

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Anna Nielsen aka "Anna N"

...I just let people know about something I made for supper that they might enjoy, too. That's all it is. (Nigel Slater)

"Cooking is about doing the best with what you have . . . and succeeding." John Thorne

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It isn't about a preference for imitation over natural flavours.  In the article, Lohman herself states that "there is a time and place to use every version of vanilla in your kitchen."  Including imitation vanilla.  Personally, I don't see the point of using bean in say, chocolate banana bread, but would certainly use it in a custard.  Bean form is about as natural as one can possibly get.

 

Hmmm...I need to find a decent locally-available brand of imitation vanilla now.  

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46 minutes ago, Anna N said:

I think you were seriously misreading what is being said.  If a natural product has no flavour once it reaches high temperature then it is a waste of that product.   Natural vanilla has a place which everyone seems to agree and vanilla essence or vanillin is a better choice when the final product will undergo prolonged exposure to heat. 

I don't want to get into a long discussion about it but there are a number of posting here favoring vanilla essence over natural vanilla.

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To do a more useful post :

I'm guessing that the alcohol maybe why natural vanilla extract breaks down at high temp.

 

We used to sell cake mixes. We used powdered natural vanilla and had no problem with a loss of flavor.


Edited by Paul Fink (log)

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7 minutes ago, Paul Fink said:

To do a more useful post :

I'm guessing that the alcohol maybe why natural vanilla extract breaks down at high temp.

 

We used to sell cake mixes. We used powdered natural vanilla and had no problem with a loss of flavor.

 

Cake mixes?  Hmmm.  Not that I'm being in the least judgemental.xD. I still think that suggesting that posters prefer artificial flavours to natural flavours is a misreading.  But thank heaven we are all entitled to our own opinion.

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Anna Nielsen aka "Anna N"

...I just let people know about something I made for supper that they might enjoy, too. That's all it is. (Nigel Slater)

"Cooking is about doing the best with what you have . . . and succeeding." John Thorne

Our 2012 (Kerry Beal and me) Blog

My 2004 eG Blog

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No one has said that fake vanilla is better than real vanilla. 

They're pointing to cooking circumstances that destroy any differentiation between the two.

In those circumstances, it makes sense to use whatever's cheapest.

If there's a significant price difference.


Notes from the underbelly

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On 3/29/2017 at 2:12 PM, Beebs said:

There's a mention of a vanilla-off in America's Test Kitchen where imitation & natural were tied

 

22 hours ago, Kerry Beal said:

That stuff is better than all but one of the natural vanillas that I have had in the past

 

1 hour ago, paulraphael said:

No one has said that fake vanilla is better than real vanilla. 

 

I'm surprised no one here knows of powdered vanilla

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I'm unfamiliar with the powder, but I would be cautious in assuming it retains more flavour after baking than any other natural vanilla product. I've tried fresh bean vs. natural extract vs. artificial extract in baked goods, and found little/no benefit to using the natural product (this was the opposite of what I'd expected/hoped to establish, just for the record). My "take" was that the flavour compounds themselves are volatile, whether they are contained in the original bean or extracted in an alcohol solution. 

 

It might be interesting to pursue this as a group experiment, perhaps. 


"The only questions that really matter are the ones you ask yourself."

Ursula K. Le Guin

 

"Not knowing the scope of your own ignorance is part of the human condition...The first rule of the Dunning-Kruger club is you don’t know you’re a member of the Dunning-Kruger club.” - psychologist David Dunning

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3 minutes ago, chromedome said:

I'm unfamiliar with the powder, but I would be cautious in assuming it retains more flavour after baking than any other natural vanilla product. I've tried fresh bean vs. natural extract vs. artificial extract in baked goods, and found little/no benefit to using the natural product (this was the opposite of what I'd expected/hoped to establish, just for the record). My "take" was that the flavour compounds themselves are volatile, whether they are contained in the original bean or extracted in an alcohol solution. 

 

It might be interesting to pursue this as a group experiment, perhaps. 

 

You may well be right. I need to order some vanilla powder and do some experiments.

I'm rather particular that I only use natural ingredients 

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The Neilsen-Massey seems to consist of ground-up vanilla beans with an anti-caking agent. Most others apparently incorporate varying degrees of sugar. 


"The only questions that really matter are the ones you ask yourself."

Ursula K. Le Guin

 

"Not knowing the scope of your own ignorance is part of the human condition...The first rule of the Dunning-Kruger club is you don’t know you’re a member of the Dunning-Kruger club.” - psychologist David Dunning

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1 hour ago, Paul Fink said:

 

 

 

I'm surprised no one here knows of powdered vanilla

I have multiple different 'powdered vanillas' in the house - vanillin crystals (synthetic), the vanilla powder sachets sold in european grocery stores (synthetic), vanilla powder maltodextrin based from the Spice House, Massey vanilla powder - also maltodextrin, and vanilla beans that I removed from extract that I made, freeze dried then ground to a powder. Each have their uses for me. 

 

I have several pounds of various vanilla beans tucked away - from which I have made many, many gallons of extract. I have multiple extracts that I have purchased or received as samples at trade shows.

 

And I would still argue that the flavor of the Gold Medal artificial extract beats most of these and not just in baking! In the kitchen up north - I used to lock away the good Haitian vanilla when I left so it would be there when I returned - now it's the Gold Medal. 

 

Don't knock it until you have tried it.


Edited by Kerry Beal (log)
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11 minutes ago, chromedome said:

The Neilsen-Massey seems to consist of ground-up vanilla beans with an anti-caking agent. Most others apparently incorporate varying degrees of sugar. 

 Not ground-up vanilla beans. Dried vanilla extract.

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11 minutes ago, Paul Fink said:

 Not ground-up vanilla beans. Dried vanilla extract.

I suspect he might be referring to this one of the Neilsen-Massey products - sugar, vanilla bean extractives and silicone dioxide anti caking agent. It has little vanilla bits in it - so it think extractives means what's left over after extraction ground up and added to sugar. I think therefore that it would be ground up vanilla beans - albeit used up ones.


Edited by Kerry Beal (log)

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